When do you need centralized – less centralized networks?

Social network analysis gives me a language to talk about and think about things I see people do. I rarely use the network measures quantitatively (does it help to know that actor A has a betweenness centrality of 0.2?) but more as structural descriptions of what I see and to explain what might happen. Centralization for example has come up a lot in my recent work with various development projects. Centralization describes the structure of the network as a whole, a highly centralized network is a hub and spokes network, one actor in the middle with a star shaped network linking him to others who are not linked to each other. In a network with low centralization on the other hand, everyone is linked to everyone.

When you start a project, you are often the mover and shaker and connector who develops links to all other actors and you move your project forward from this position being the hub, everything happens because you are there, you are in control. We all know projects which only got off the ground because of one tireless visionary who pushed and pushed and pushed for his or her vision. Great.

The only problem is that what is one of the most effective strategies for getting projects off the ground is not always the best for making them sustainable. So while it is only human to think that “more of the same” will make us successful in the future, it is important to understand that hub and spokes networks are
1. highly vulnerable to shocks: This could be a heart attack of the visionary or the hub being overworked or corrupted by power and stopping to be the mover he/she used to be,
2. Don’t harvest the wisdom of the crowd: Because all information is filtered through the hub, people don’t get together independently to think together, inspire each other and come up with new solutions. This is one of the reasons why hub and spokes networks are especially well suited to implement simple repetitive tasks where all answers are known and these networks are especially useless in solving complex messy problems where the answers are not known and might differ between locations or situations.
3. They don’t develop the bottom-up energy to maintain themselves and grow: Because everything is always a reaction to the push from the center, everyone starts to rely on that push and waits for the center to come up with ideas, activities and funding. This can lead to the typical situation in donor funded projects: As the funding expires the activities die down, even if they were extremely useful to the people involved and it would require only little own contribution to maintain them.

What does that mean? If you are really passionate about the change you are aiming for, remember: This is not about you. This is not about your organization’s signboard or your own name attached to the change. Go in, move and shake, develop your hub and spokes network as necessary but AS SOON AS YOU HAVE THAT, start implementing your exit strategy (which might take most of your project) by connecting actors that you work with and making sure that they will eventually be able to do their work without you. Get over the fear of loosing control because loosing it is a pre-requisite for having an impact beyond what you alone / your organization alone can do.

Quote of the Day

“One useful rule of thumb is to use network maps more for raising questions than for answering them” (Hoppe and Reinelt 2009)

Dirty Energy Money

No sitting around tables and playing with toys (as in Net-Map) but another cool application of social network analysis in which participation plays a very important role as well. This is not participatory data collection (the data collection is mainly automatic) but the results speak to the politically aware mind and might motivate and feed (with data and with anger…) participation in political processes.

Have a look at the dirty energy money networks. Because if you want to understand how politics work, it helps a lot, to understand the money flow networks between the (oil and coal) industries and decision makers. And, if you are interested in it from a methodological point of view, it is just a pleasure to have such an interactive network analysis surface, where you can click on actors and links and learn a lot more about them. And to explore what happens to a two mode network (with two different kinds of links, companies and politicians in this case) if you look at it from one side (who gives to politicians) or the other (who do specific companies give to). And if you are not satisfied with numbers alone, there are a number of links hidden on some of the pages which will get you to sites that explain more about the causes and effects of the money flow.


Profound moments happen at the unlikeliest times and places. This morning on the metro I was reading The Change Handbook (Holman, Devane and Cady) when all of a sudden I had a new insight about growth. I think it was spurred by their ideas about mastery. In the past months I have put much thought and activity into growing Net-Map bigger than what one person can do: Whenever I engage with a project, I make sure that someone from the project is trained as far as possible to take over the activities; I tell clients: “I want you to hire me for as few days as possible.” because I want just enough time to infect them with Net-Map, I want it to go viral. I’m training colleagues how to use it, so that we can work together, form a community of practice and take it to the next level…

So why do I have a feeling that is so quiet in the background that I barely even hear it, a feeling that tells me, this is not enough? Do I need to train more people? And more people?

This morning, squeezed in the crowds of the Metro I realized the problem is a lack of balance. I teach, teach, teach with an urgency, with a mission (as everybody knows who has tried to stop me talking about Net-Map), making the method’s community grow in size. But where do I go, what do I do to learn? How do I grow?

In every project I do I learn something new, about corruption in Ghana or rice par-boiling in northern Nigeria. I work with content matter experts who can explain these parts of the world to the smallest detail. And that truly is exciting. And we stretch the method to fit these different cases and challenges. Which makes me learn more about the method and how to teach it.

But this morning I realized that I long for another kind of learning as well: I want to work in collaboration with masters (in process management, facilitation, people methods, whatever you could call it) and learn from them how they do things, ask a million question, immerse myself in the process and feel as well as intellectually understand what they do. While I add the things that I do. A different kind of growth…

Why do I put this here? Because I know from experience that the most reliable way of making your dreams come true is to send them out there, write it down in your diary, tell all your friends, tell a stranger on the bus and put some energy and sincerity into really wishing for it. Things will start coming your way. And because you know what you are looking for, you will actually recognize them and embrace them.

On quote that I found in the same book this morning:
“The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift” Albert Einstein